I’d actually like to own something like the Apple Watch. It’s a step towards ubiquitous computing, it’s got health features that I should be paying more attention to as I get older, and it’s designed to work with my existing crop of gadgets at work and at home. I’m not going to, though, at least not for a few years, because the current implementation is less useful utility and more ostentatious, over-priced status symbol. So I’ll wait a while for the sensible wearable Apple widget.
But there’s one bad reason to shun the Apple Watch: that it has mysterious unknown deadly health risks. But that’s exactly the argument an article in the New York Times has made.
The article by Nick Bilton is flaming paranoia: he compares wearing a watch with an electromagnetic transmitter to smoking cigarettes. I’d tear into the absurdities, but I don’t need to: Orac is coldly unkind to them.
To Bilton, the Apple Watch and Samsung’s competitor smart watch are just like cigarettes. No, not exactly. More specifically, to Bilton, assurances that the Apple Watch and Samsung’s smartwatch are like the assurances of physicians used in tobacco advertising used seven decades ago to falsely assure smokers that cigarettes were perfectly safe. Bilton also stretches his facts a bit; back then many doctors did strongly suspect that smoking tobacco was not safe. Indeed, it was suspected as early as 1912 that cigarette smoke might be causing lung cancer. As I’ve discussed many times before, the Germans produced epidemiologic data in the 1930s and 1940s linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer. Around the time of those ads, it’s true that it wasn’t yet firmly established that smoking was strongly linked with lung cancer. That wouldn’t come until the 1950s, and it would still take a decade for the evidence to become undeniable to all but tobacco company shills. Indeed, most physicians seven decades ago didn’t accept the link, but it’s going a bit far to say that doctors “were not aware that smoking could cause cancer, heart disease, and lung disease.”
Even worse, Bilton goes trotting off to find a source that would agree with his strange concerns, and he finds…Joseph Mercola. Mercola is favorably cited in the New York Times! This is less of a feather in Mercola’s cap and more of a wet shart for the Times.
It’s in the Style section, but that doesn’t excuse it, unless you think “stylish” is a synonym for “idiot”. Clearly, what this means is that the Times needs to hire Carl Zimmer to edit all of the sections to make sure this never happens again.
consciousness razor says
You really think they’d read it in the dark?
I always love this sort of thing as an Electrical Engineer. So, the EM waves from your smart watch, with a few Watts of power, are going to cause you cancer but not the WiFi, The microwave transmitters, the power lines or the radio and TV?
FOR GOD’S SAKE MAN! SOME OF THOSE TV TRANSMISSIONS ARE RIGHT HAND CIRCULAR POLARIZED! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS!?!?!?
I had never heard the term “wet shart” before, and made the mistake of looking it up. Color me sorry.
Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says
brucegee1962 @ #3
Rather more brown, I think. But, then, the NYT doesn’t appear to be anymore stained by this than it already was, so maybe you got off okay too.
“back then many doctors did strongly suspect that smoking tobacco was not safe”
Bit OT, but HELL!! James VI & I* thought it was bad: see his 1604 A Counterblaste to Tobacco.
* Not a temporal anomaly but of Scotland and England respectively.
My own sister has bought into this: she insists that the WiFi in my parents’ house be turned off when she’s there because it’s emitting radiation.
My parents are in their 80’s, not exactly up on tech, but even they find this nonsense. I keep saying “It’s just a radio! We’re all bombarded by radio waves all our lives! Our parents have been exposed to radio waves since they were born in the early 1930s!” Nothing makes a dent.
Or it could be like other Apple products where you can get lung cancer from inhaling all that smug.
Just kidding, I have a Mac myself.
Humans have been bombarded by RF radiation for their entire existence. Just turn on an AM radio during a thunderstorm and hear how much radio noise each flash of thunder generates.
Meh,, lightning, not thunder.
PZ Myers says
If you’re going to get upset about the insignificant amount of radiation coming from your cell phone or apple watch, why aren’t you panicking and urging the immediate evacuation of the Rocky Mountain states? While we’re at it, the increased background radiation in the mountains seems to have a smaller effect on inducing cancer than living in the Gulf states, presumably because of all the chemical industries in those areas. Run around in circles, screaming! There’s nowhere safe!
The odd RF pulse from a fair old distance away (unless you’re unlucky or foolish…) isn’t quite the same as spending all day, every day being illuminated with various colors and flavors of EM radiation (often at higher received power levels than lightning, by way of a bonus).
But that’s all kinda irrelevant, as there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence that your chances of cancer (or any other disease for that matter) are increased as a result.
Bronze Dog says
“Warning: This T-shirt reflects electromagnetic radiation at 186,000 miles per second!”
@8 and 9, timegueguen: I don’t know, I rather like “flash of thunder”. It’s just an audible flash.
I must say, however, that EM radiation HAS caused cancer. In me. Skin cancer. Damned sun, anyhow.
Marcus Ranum says
Don’t tell them about all the neutrinos sleeting constantly through their bodies!! Anything that can penetrate through The Earth like that has got to be dangerous! And unstoppable!!
That’s the funny thing about these theories: they all involve something that the individual feels they have a chance of controlling. Worried about radio waves? Forget it – can’t control that. Worried about neutrinos? Forget it – can’t control them. Worried about radar? Forget it – too much of it and can’t control it. Worried about WiFi in a friend’s house? Lecturing the friend is possible and feeds back into one’s self-importance.
Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says
Not to mention that we ourselves are radiating reasonably strongly in the infrared frequencies.
It’ll still be light enough to read outside for about eight and a half minutes.
If the folks at Apple are on the ball, they’ll put out ads showing Michael McKean wearing the watch.
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
Back when I worked for the schools, the neighborhood where I worked was all up in arms about the radiation from a proposed cell phone tower in the area. One of my coworkers took great delight in reminding them of the fact that the university a few blocks away has a nuclear reactor in the basement.
Anthropogenic sources of EM radiation *are* apparently impacting the ability of birds to navigate. It’s not physically harmful to them, but it does interfere with their behavior. It looks as though only specific wavelengths are responsible, so it’s possible we can avoid generating them once their origin is identified. In the meantime, don’t lend your Apple Watch to a migratory songbird!
Rich Woods says
Damn you! I’d just sent off the research proposal. I spent all night working on that. Finally I thought I’d found a way onto the science shill gravy train, and that riches and rewards beyond measure would be mine — all mine! — just like those nice folks over at [enter denialist website du jour] claim.
AJ Milne says
Au contraire. While EM radiation at the frequencies and amplitudes described has no direct effect, human paranoia about it can, in fact, be highly beneficial…
Like the time on my youth I got sweet low rent on a really pretty nice place because it was close to high tension lines…
(The hissing sound the rain made on quiet nights was soothing, too.)
Eric Hill says
Just had a bit of a debate with Paul Thurrott (tech journalist) about this on twitter… His argument was that it’s concerning because it “may” be a problem, and science can’t be definitive. He tried to argue that only US data showed no correlation, apparently he didn’t realize there was a national Danish study showing no correlation… whoops!
Best not go near a microwave oven then. Microwave ovens operate in one of the frequency bands that WiFi uses, and the leakage power usually handily exceeds the intentional WiFi output (I’ve actually run that test myself).
I HAVE MY KEROSENE LANTERN AND I CLOSE MY WINDOWS REALLY TIGHT AGAINST THE NIGHT DAEMONS!!!!!!!!
george gonzalez says
You can try to use facts, like the fact that EM radiation is 100 million times weaker per photon than sunlight, and the total absorbed wattage is a ten thousandth of what you get from sunlight, but facts don’t have much traction with those folks.
Al Dente says
Do the words “carbon monoxide” mean anything to you?
David Marjanović says
Or for that matter a mechanism. Ionizing radiation causes cancer; radio waves cannot ionize anything I can think of.
Can’t do that. The extra wear and tear probably increases rates of pharyngeal cancers….
Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says
What? Visible light is EM radiation. As is radio, IR, UV and everything up to gamma rays.
My dad was once asked if he was worried by the microwave-relay tower out back of the building where he worked. He said it was great, because they didn’t need a microwave oven – just put a cup of coffee out on the counter, and it would heat right up.
consciousness razor says
I don’t want to upset you, but I’m afraid your lantern is possessed as well. I would tell you to kill it with fire, but … uhhh … you should just call an exorcist.
Chelydra #19: I wouldn’t loan an Apple watch to a migratory bird, just because Apple maps would get them horribly lost!
Leftie conspiracy? Don’t bother me now, I’m trying to read the fine print in the preppers ad and I’m getting sleeeeeeepy…..
I know, damn thing’s set fire to the curtains twice now, I’ve had to glue newspaper over the window instead. And the glue makes my head spin. Wheee! My minister’s due around any minute now with the bucket of holy water and the donation bucket. One or the other will get the flames out this time.
No PZ. It’s designed to NOT work with all the rest.
Apple stuff (and that of many other companies) go out of their way not to work with hardware and software made by others.
And by “out of their way” I mean that part of the cost of the product pays for engineers to add features that work against the user and make the device more complex that it needs to be.
All the rest, I agree with you.
Are no other Pharyngula readers following “Better Call Saul”? The protagonist’s brother, brilliantly portrayed by Michael McKean suffers from this “malady.” Naturally, when in the hospital, a doctor more or less established that his illness was purely psychosomatic, but in the end, does that really matter? If a patient can convince him/herself that they are being sickened by radiation, there’s very little medicine that will help. Years of analysis, perhaps, but the phenomenon of believing that electro-magnetic radiation is poisonous would seem to be enough to convince many that it’s true. Does not make it so, of course, but…
JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says
…Assuming PZ’s stupid enough to not know that and have non-Apple devices. Yet he’s only ever talked about having Apple gagets….
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
Other than, in the context of inappropriate use in place of carbon dioxide, proof that Ronald Reagan couldn’t count to two?
I don’t know, what did you have in mind?
Of course, in fairness to Lofty, Al Dente, I think that I should note that Lofty probably intended exactly that issue to occur to people.
We recently had to sign a disclosure statement on a house we were selling that it did not have any “electromagnetic radiation” in it. Scary stuff!
The Apple Watch isn’t that crazy expensive as watches go. I discovered that the 1960s brand Accutron – marketed as the watch for astronauts and those who’d want to be – still sells watches for $450 and up. At $350, the Apple Watch is a bargain, and it has Bluetooth and Wifi, not just a tuning fork.
A cheaper alternative might be the Pebble. My girlfriend wears one, because one of the apps it runs shows the time as three big numbers. It costs about $100 as opposed to her old $25 Timex, but she doesn’t have to put on her glasses to read the time. It supports Bluetooth, so when my iPhone rings, she gets a notification. It doesn’t have a fitness tracking sensor though.
As for the Times article. Yeah, they’re scraping it.
Anthropogenic sources of EM radiation *are* apparently impacting the ability of birds to navigate.
They navigate just fine – smack into the window.
Just turn off the universe.